Backgrounds and Repeated Texts
‘Background’ can be that on which a subject is placed. It is an opposite of ‘foreground’. It relates to context and origins. It can be what one might like to know about something in order to make meaning or significance. A background may involve where something or someone has come from and is thus suggestive of displacements of time and space. It invites a dichotomy between what is ‘now’ and ‘here’ and that which is ‘then’ and ‘there’. And what is in between the ‘now’ and the ‘then’ involves a trajectory and movement. In establishing the context for this exhibition DU draws on a question he relates to Foucault: ‘what kind of history forms our present…and how does our present fit into our history?’
DU taught at Jinan Craft Arts School and Shandong Arts Academy
for 18 years before moving to Australia in 2003. He has since completed
a MFA at Monash University where he wrote a thesis titled 'Hybridity and
Art' (2009). DU's notion of hybridity is based on his experience of being
‘in between two cultures’: roughly, Chinese and western. For
DU, hybridity is marked by borrowing, appropriation, trade, exchange and
investing meaning into particular symbols, whether they are brands, foods,
and clothes. DU presents his own position as follows: as an immigrant
artist, I have adapted from one cultural environment to another, thus
facing new options of absorption and coalescence while facing survival
and developmental challenges. This new survival condition brings times
of emotional pain and experience…but [also] a cultural drift and
a sense of belonging nowhere.
The hybridity of DU’s artistic practice is evident in his use and re-use of his own paintings and the images of others. Video works such as ‘Face’ (6’45”, 2009) and ‘Background’ (2010, 23’04”) re-use earlier images from paintings, television images, images from the internet. The video works are painterly – for they emphasise texture, variation and approximation - while some of DU’s paintings seek to re-create the smoothness and gloss of some photography. Through his repetition of common images, DU applies variations of context, media and texture so that these images are viewed within a different perspective.
DU’s works emerge as fully formed ideas: a sign of his own artistic experience, yet also an indication of his method. His paintings and video works seem as both expressions of theory and artistic practice. Throughout his works he draws on ideas associated with postmodernism, which have been absorbed and developed in China in an era when postmodernism has lost much of its lustre in other contexts. DU provides notes on his exhibitions as well as for each work. He expresses a desire for his works to be understood in a particular way and to be coming from somewhere. DU seeks to make criticisms of cultures and politics. He writes, during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, political movement and class struggle became a major social background, in which the Chinese people had lost their freedom – the right to gain knowledge, the enthusiasm of invention and enjoying a free life were deprived.
History appears in the recent paintings of DU as a series of fragmented images. These images of ‘history’ are iconic: portraits of men of power and portraits of victims. These victims include a man about to be shot during a war in Vietnam, a woman behind a barbed wire fence seemingly pleading for help. The reproduction and de-contextualisation of these images suggest a commonality of suffering and a commonality of political violence across both time and space. A painting, such as “Control and Being Controlled” (2010) projects geography – with a map at the painting’s centre - as knowable through events and confrontations of violence and ideology. Once, however, these events happened. They happened in a time and place and had consequences for particular people. Now, their image, however, is reproduced on a canvas in a painterly manner.
DU's paintings combine elements of grand moments of history with that of the daily, trivial and personal. In the video work, 'Background', a family's history is juxtaposed against readings of 20th century China. A series of images from early, mid and late 20th century are projected onto the face of a woman who has her eyes closed and face painted white. Like the boy in 'Face', this woman's face forms part of the screen for 'Background'. The images from the Cultural Revolution, manifestations of Mao's imaginations, internal struggles for power, appear one after the other - and in silence - like an individual's cultural memory. Perhaps DU is suggesting that these are the images that form a weighty part of the subject's memory, imagination and in some cases, trauma.
Through his engagement with the discourses of representation, history, and mass media, DU asks questions of culture, politics and ways of looking. His methods of de-contextualisation, appropriation and fragmented narrative provide an idiosyncratic discourse on contemporary issues of hybridity and in-betweeness. Such moments are both opportunities for recognising loss and finding a new presence.
Andy Fuller is a PhD student in the School of Asian Languages and Societies at the University of Tasmania. He writes on popular and urban cultures. He can be contacted at email@example.com